This article has been amended
Social Work England is to probe students’ experience of cultural sensitivity, representation and training in anti-discriminatory practice on their courses, as well as how Covid-19’s impact on trainees has differed based on their protected characteristics or level of deprivation.
The regulator issued a tender last week for a contract to conduct research with both students and education providers on a range of issues concerning equality, diversity and inclusion, Covid’s impact, the future of social work education and the case for registering students.
Specific questions that the research will ask students include what their feelings and experiences are of representation and cultural sensitivity on social work courses and placements, and of anti-discriminatory practice in training.
Issues concerning the representation and experience of students from Black and ethnic minority groups and others with protected characteristics on training courses, including in relation to the curriculum’s focus on anti-discriminatory practice, have come under the spotlight in recent months.
Spotlight on anti-discriminatory course content
In July, chief social worker for children Isabelle Trowler wrote to Social Work England’s chief executive, Colum Conway, seeking assurances that the regulator was ensuring anti-discriminatory practice was integral to social work qualifying programmes, following “serious concerns” she had received from students that this was not the case.
Students groups have raised similar concerns directly with the regulator in relation to the amount of content on areas including anti-racist practice and anti-oppressive practice in relation to people from LGTBQI+ groups.
In addition, Frontline has faced criticism from participants, including in relation to the level of content on anti-racism on its curriculum, something it has vowed to address through an action plan, while fellow fast-track provider Think Ahead has recognised the need to address its low representation of Black and ethnic minority trainees compared to other courses.
The three-month research study, due to start in January 2021, will also examine the impact of Covid-19 – and the adjustments to courses it entailed – on student learning and poverty, and whether experiences of the pandemic differ for students and new graduates based on deprivation levels and protected characteristics.
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The introduction of the lockdown in England had a significant impact on courses and students, as teaching moved online and some placements had to cease before their scheduled end, requiring universities to decide how they should be assessed.
Social Work England said that final-year students graduated in broadly expected numbers this year. However, those who did have to extend their studies into the 2020-21 because their placements were halted faced a long wait for the government to confirm that it would fund extended bursaries for them, which was only confirmed last month.
The research will also ask students and education providers for their views on the possibility of Social Work England introducing a social work student register.
Sarah Blackmore, the regulator’s executive director of strategy, policy and engagement, told Community Care last week that engagement with student groups and education providers found support for the idea, on the grounds that it would help students develop their professional identity and provide a clearer link to the professional standards trainees would be required to follow once qualified.
The Student Social Work Hub, a group of social work students in England, said there were mixed views on a register among students it had spoken to, with one saying that it would provide a level of professionalism and accountability, and another suggesting it may put more pressure on students.
Academics’ backing for student registration
Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUC-SWEC) chair Janet Melville-Wiseman said it supported the idea, adding: “We welcome the opportunity for students to join the register as a student registrant in line with the regulatory approach in the other countries of the UK, this would encourage students to develop their emerging professional identity alongside already qualified colleagues.”
In relation to the pandemic’s impact, she said understanding the effect of Covid-19 on social work students and educators could not be fully captured within such a survey but that JUC-SWEC welcomed Social Work England’s wish to begin to understand these experiences.
Philip Hallam, Social Work England’s executive director of registration, quality assurance, and legal said the research was designed to understand the challenges and opportunities the sector faces in training the next generation of social workers, including the impact of Covid-19, how Social Work England has been received as the new regulator and the experiences, attitudes, perceptions and barriers of students in social work education.
“Social Work England is committed to gathering intelligence, stories and data about social work and the profession through quality conversations and sound research, sharing what we’re learning with the sector,” Hallam said.
The regulator said it was looking for “experts in delivering research studies and who can demonstrate high levels of service/experience within the health and social care sector” to carry out the project.
The deadline for applications for the tender is 4 December.